The collecting of rare, valuable and interesting works of art or literature is, to those who fall under its spell, one of life's most subtle and enduring pleasures. As distinguished from the mindless, indiscriminate amassing of "collectibles," it is an avocation that requires a sure knowledge of the field in which one has chosen to collect and a sufficient degree of taste to recognize the difference between the good and the bad, the honest and the meretricious.
It is also, in an age that pays unblinking homage to reflexive egalitarianism and sterile academicism, an avocation that has fallen out of favor. For one thing it is assumed, incorrectly, to be the exclusive province of the rich. For another it is assumed that the "people" somehow have a "right" of access to this material--manuscripts, letters, first editions, works of art, what have you--which cannot always be gained when it "disappears" into private collections.
This second argument has been raised, with considerable passion, by various members of the architectural community who object to a new exhibition and sale of drawings by Frank Lloyd Wright. This event, which opened last Friday at a gallery in New York City, is designed to raise money toward the restoration of Taliesin, the celebrated Wright residence in Wisconsin. Only the very affluent need apply: the prices of the 100 drawings begin at $5,000 and soar past $100,000. But the cost of the drawings seems not to interest those who have criticized their being offered for sale; rather, they complain that since the drawings are taken from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation's archives at Taliesin West in Arizona, their sale will therefore both weaken the collection and deny access to the public.
But "the public" is of course not interested; those who will be primarily affected by the sale of these drawings--if, in fact, any or all of them are actually sold--are academic researchers who have a particular interest in Frank Lloyd Wright. To such researchers, the private collecting of Wright drawings--or Hemingway letters, or Homer sketches, or Ives scores--is an "elitist" undertaking, not because those who indulge in it are necessarily rich and/or aristocratic, but because some if not all of them refuse to grant researchers access to their collections.
Whether the sale of these 100 Wright drawings constitutes a violation of the "rights" of researchers is far from clear. The Taliesin archivist told Paul Goldberger of The New York Times that the drawings "roughly duplicate" ones that will not be removed from the Arizona collection. "There are several one-of-a-kind drawings in the sale," he said, "but for the most part we tried to choose things that will not deplete the archive." What the archivist seems to be saying is that if it is necessary to diminish the archive slightly in order to raise funds to help keep Taliesin from going to ruin, then the ends justify the means.
Others disagree. One architectural historian objects that "there are other ways to get money," though he does not specify any. Another says, "The sale of drawings to the general public is an unwise decision." And still another, disturbed that anything at all should be removed from the archive, raises the quintessential researcher's complaint: "It is often the chance to compare the tiny differences from one drawing to another that can be of the most interest to scholars. It is crucial to research to be able to look at all of the drawings together."
The merits of these objections vary, but all of them arise out of the assumption that there is a public, i.e. scholarly, "right" to full access to the Wright collection that transcends the interests of the Wright estate and its managers. The critics of the sale seem to hold in scorn the judgment of Wright's widow and the Taliesin archivist that the Wright archive should be an essentially private operation, rather than part of a major library or museum. As Goldberger put it:
"Few scholars would speak publicly, but several suggested privately that the foundation has operated less like a library or a museum than like a private collection, limiting access to those scholars whose work it approved in advance and charging a fee for use of the material. The sale of drawings, in the view of these scholars, enhances the sense that the Wright archive is a private collection and not a public trust."
But that is entirely justified: The Wright archive is not a "public trust." It is the apparent belief of the administrators of Taliesin and its archive that they are carrying out Wright's wishes in maintaining the collection as a private institution; this conviction may be frustrating to researchers, even infuriating, but it is entirely legitimate and the Wright estate is entirely within its legal rights in attempting to put it into practice. If the estate's administrators believe it is necessary to sell some drawings in order to restore Taliesin, that also is entirely within their legal rights--however much it may anger those who believe that Wright's papers should all be gathered under one roof, for the convenience of researchers and other interested parties.
Now, it may well be that the critics of the sale of the Wright drawings are on firmer ground than most of those who object to private collections; certainly there is much truth in the point that, as one historian put it, "it is problematic when an organization whose reason for being is to preserve a heritage then sets out to disperse that material." But the hostility toward the private collector that runs through their remarks is puzzling. The private collector has been, over the years, not the enemy of true scholarship but its loyal friend: Preserving material in the best possible condition, providing support and sometimes patronage to unknown artists, arousing new interest in artists and writers whose reputations have diminished, donating collections to libraries and museums.
To be sure, there are the greedy few among the private collectors; from the robber barons who lined their bookshelves with incunabula they never read to the fast-lane sharpsters of the 1980s who collect the hottest new artists as sure-fire investments, the ranks of the connoisseurs have never been free from the cynical and sordid. But the best of the collectors, which is the great majority of them, have provided a considerably greater contribution to the enrichment of literature and the arts than the researchers who so avidly seek unrestricted entry to the fruits of their avocation.